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The changing humanitarian landscape: obstacles and opportunities

Time (GMT +00) 18:30 19:30
Hero image description: Yves Daccord - ICRC Director-General Image credit:ICRC Image license:Creative Commons


Yves Daccord - Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross


Sara Pantuliano - Head, HPG

The first in a series of annual lectures hosted by the Humanitarian Policy Group was launched on 6th December 2012. The inaugural lecture was delivered by Yves Daccord, the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As the ICRC approaches its 150th anniversary, Mr Daccord shared his vision of how the ICRC is responding to the various challenges and opportunities that changes in the humanitarian landscape present. 

Mr Daccord began by reflecting on the utility of the idea of a ‘humanitarian landscape’ – which he considered an improvement on the term ‘international humanitarian system.’ Noting that an international system suggests one that is well organised with rules, a centre, coordination and good organisation he said that to assert the existence of an international humanitarian system that possesses these characteristics is totally misleading and does not correspond to reality. Alternatively, the idea of a ‘humanitarian community’ suggests something warm, but also reflects an ‘us’ and therefore an ‘other’ that might not necessarily be part of the community and therefore excluded.

Mr Daccord said ‘landscape’ more closely represented the ICRC perspective since it is in  keeping with a diverse model and  agenda – and one which allows for tectonic shifts in the terrain on which humanitarians operate. He went on to identify the principal challenges that can be identified on the ‘landscape.’

Firstly, the gap between humanitarian needs and humanitarian response – which in some instances is widening, citing Syria as an example where enormous humanitarian needs are not being met.  2013 will continue to present difficulties in the form of the continuing economic crisis which is squeezing middle classes globally with the result that there will likely be fewer resources for humanitarian needs.  Although the ICRC has a budget of one billion euros in the coming year the pressures on that budget will increase.  In Syria, Mali, Libya and Afghanistan the perception is that the gap is growing.  Despite talk of ‘resilience’ and ‘coping mechanisms’ the reality is that there remains a gap between needs and response.

Secondly, the challenge of direct access: close proximity to affected peoples.  The major concern here is ground is being lost on direct access not just because of security reasons but also because even weak and failed states know how to control humanitarian aid.  States bear the foremost responsibility to care for their people, reflected in the placement of the host government at the centre of humanitarian response.  However, this presents many problems and stresses on humanitarian systems. The UN’s humanitarian response to Syria is appalling because the UN cannot move outside the constraints of the host government’s sovereignty.

The models which can be identified on the ‘humanitarian landscape’ of the past twenty years are those founded on the big INGOs which outsource responses. MSF is an exception.  Major actors have international, national and local partners – and therefore less direct contact with the people affected. The result has an impact on the psyche of an organisation. If the ICRC could not establish direct, face to face links with affected people the organisation would lose its edge.  Increasingly, it is working with national Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations.  For a long time they worked alongside the ICRC – today they are at the centre of its response.  This places an obligation on the organisation to ensure that its people should continue to remain on the ground.

Thirdly, the ‘new guys on the block’ – although it remains moot as to whether or not they are new.  In an anecdotal aside the speaker recounted a recent visit to Mogadishu where he was met by the representative of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) with responsibility for coordinating the humanitarian response from Saudi NGOs. The representative was the former head of HAC in Sudan – and whilst the ICRC’s former relationship with the representative had been very difficult in Khartoum, the relationship in Mogadishu was different and represented what the speaker identified as an ‘interesting moment.’ 

Mr Daccord said that ‘new players’ on the humanitarian landscape may present risks too – but that the outsourcing of risk, connections and placing a reliance on the ‘other’ to take on direct access is extremely risky – and something which is not adequately reflected in discussions.  It should not be forgotten that this model is the not the minority one but the majority.

Fourthly, the challenge presented by the combination of competition and deregulation. On paper in 1995 this looked like a good job, but today it is obsolete, does not produce results, is not respected and does not close the gap. Pressure is exerted from donor governments to improve but the coordination model does not work. Noting that deregulation has an effect on a principled approach to humanitarian action, the speaker speculated that while he estimated that approximately 96% of his audience would support a principled approach, he urged that this should be accompanied by consideration of the effects of deregulation.  A principled approach from the ‘bunker’ will likely have an effect on the people the ICRC tries to reach if those who are on the ground do not share this approach.  Mr Daccord challenged the idea that if one retains principles from a position in the ‘bunker’ that this is satisfactory.

Concerning deregulation and coordination he thought that the jury is less ‘us’ and more affected people who have the means to rate the ICRC. In an age where people are well informed and have the means of communication they will use it to rate the performance of humanitarian players. To illustrate this point he provided the example of an interview published on youtube about the shortcomings of the US Red Cross’s response to Hurricane Sandy which received thousands of viewings and which demonstrates how communications technology will demonstrate whether or not humanitarian actors are in the right place, at the right time, providing the right response – a trend which will become more an issue.

Turning his attention to the opportunities on the ‘humanitarian landscape’ Mr Daccord noted the following:

The need to accept and capitalise on the diversity of players on today’s ‘humanitarian landscape’ – something which might be positive, but which will require the ability to survive fragmentation and different perspectives and a rethinking of the coordination model which will require new proposals either from the ICRC or from others if new proposals are not forthcoming.

Mr Daccord said that the establishment of a common language and narrative from the outset of a disaster is necessary and should allow for coordination. In some contexts the ICRC’s first choice of coordinating partner is the MSF because they share the closest ideas, already work together in the same locations and are preoccupied with the same issues.  Secondly, the WFP because they are central to any response, use cash more frequently in humanitarian response – which will influence how all humanitarians operate. 

Acknowledging the diversity present on today’s ‘landscape’ Mr Daccord asserted that it would not follow that the ICRC will partner with everyone and that there would have to be shared agreement on basic points of principle.  He thought it necessary to revisit these principles and partner only with organisations that can work impartially. The speaker identified impartiality as the critical principle to respond to the needs of people at the centre of a crisis and as the principle which will distinguish a humanitarian response from the provision of relief.

Finally, the speaker identified the need to invest more in ‘our own’ people – internationally, nationally and called for responsible management.


Mr Daccord’s lecture was followed by a broad range of questions from the audience in London and from people following it online. These included:

What principles will the ICRC will generate in 30 years’ time and will the ICRC play the same leadership role that it has historically, especially in the provision of guiding humanitarian principles?  There is a need to progress from the humanitarian/development debate to the provision of a correct response for people. There is also a need to develop a response that goes beyond the immediate emergency and addresses chronic needs. It may also prove important to develop more multi-sectoral organisations that will identify multiple needs and amalgamate different competencies to provide a more cohesive response – and one which will also allow for a local input.

What are the key skills required of tomorrow’s humanitarian leaders?Mr Daccord identified the key skill for tomorrow’s humanitarians as sagacity but thought this might not necessarily translate well into English – and clarified by adding ‘astute judgement’.

Are sanctions required in response to increased atrocities committed with impunity against civilians in contemporary conflicts – and in response to the erosion of the ICRC’s raison d’etre: namely the protection of civilians and international humanitarian law?Mr Daccord agreed that breaches of international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians required sanctions but that any progress in the international justice system would have to be more impartial than at present. He clarified that sanctions should be criminal and not economic since the latter are frequently to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

What recommendations does the ICRC might have in strengthening the global cluster system which could be shared with the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) at the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Principles meetings?The ICRC is engaged with the cluster system but it is important to reach agreement that one model of coordination should not be the only one – which is currently a problem with the cluster system. The cluster approach was introduced after the tsunami – not a conflict.  The view that one size fits all does not work in practice.  Mr Daccord gave the example of the DRC where the UN is integrated in a mission that is providing protection to one of the parties – a situation he characterised as ‘crazy.’  It also places people in a situation where they will not be able to deliver. IASC meetings with the ERC and UN tend to be dominated by the transformative agenda, discussions about ‘resilience’ and it would be desirable to amend discussions so that they reflect the priorities.

How will the ICRC respond to the diversity of principles espoused by private and public sector players in the ‘humanitarian landscape’? Mr Daccord stressed that the unifying principle remains impartiality: the backbone of the ICRC’s work and the one that distinguishes it from humanitarian relief.  There may be a case for re-visiting the meaning of humanitarianism. For example, an army needs to do relief work but cannot necessarily do so impartially – it is not the job of an army to be so. Similarly the private sector can provide assistance but it is questionable whether their response can be impartial. 

Regarding rating – does the self-certifying and rating of NGOS assist in improving their performance and if so, should the ICRC and UN also self-certify? Rating is inevitable and will include rating by ‘customers’. Unsure about whether certification is the answer but acknowledged that if the ICRC does not self-certify then others will do so. The ICRC perspective is that it is better to be on the inside where it can influence the debate rather than remain aloof from it.  Questions arise about who will be responsible for certifying and whether this should be governments.  The speaker thought the thinking around certification too narrow, in need of development and a response to the question, certified by whom?

Is the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative still useful ten years on?Regarding the GHD initiative the speaker was unimpressed with where it is today. He thought some donors need to engage more about their requirements, what results they expect and how these should be monitored and evaluated.  He understood that requirements were needed to display value for money and results but was unsure whether these were really working.  He reasserted the need for a common narrative which addressed the all too important issues which are frequently missing from the discussions – access being a good example.  Finally, Mr Daccord expressed a concern that ministers are making more and more decisions which are not necessarily evidence based.



The first in a series of annual lectures hosted by the Humanitarian Policy Group will be launched on 6th December 2012 at the ODI in London. These lectures will be delivered by senior figures on the leading humanitarian issues of the day.

This year’s inaugural lecture will be given by Yves Daccord, the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The lecture will examine how the international humanitarian landscape is changing and how the ICRC is adapting its role in providing humanitarian assistance to people affected by conflict and armed violence.

As this iconic organisation approaches its 150th anniversary, Mr Daccord will share his vision of how the ICRC is responding to the various challenges and opportunities that the ongoing changes in the humanitarian landscape present. 

This event is by invitation only. If you are interested to attend please contact Chris Harmer on 020 7922 0335 or email [email protected] with your name and organisation.  Alternatively, to follow the lecture online you can sign up via the 'register' tab.

Speaker biography:

A former journalist, Yves Daccord joined the ICRC in 1992 and worked in Israel and the occupied territories, Sudan, Yemen, the northern Caucasus and Georgia. He returned to ICRC headquarters in 1997 to take up the post of deputy Head of the Division for the Promotion of International Humanitarian Law. In 1998 he was appointed Head of the Communication Division before his appointment as Director-General in 2010.